Whos Behind the Spam Surge?

By Larry Seltzer  |  Posted 2006-12-17 Print this article Print

Opinion: Botnets are doing more with less, and some say the next-generation software is just beginning to spread. Ask me again in March.

As I discussed several weeks ago, everyones seen that there has been a massive surge in spam over the last couple of months. More researchers are weighing in on whats behind it. One point many sources make, and I made in my last column, is that there was a "Christmas Spike" last year too. Spam shot up roughly from November 2005 through January 2006 and then tailed off until the late 06 surge, yielding a bowl-shaped curve for the year. Will this year have a tail-off in February too? Ask me in March, but the people at MessageLabs dont expect to see one. They see a steadily increasing spam load through 2007, pushing the limits of our tolerance.
Like Postini, with which I talked for my last column, MessageLabs is a hosted secure mail vendor. Such vendors process a tremendous amount of e-mail to and from areas all over the world (Postini was the biggest last time I checked). This puts them in an excellent position to make judgments about trends in e-mail generally, such as the overall prevalence of spam. I trust their numbers more than I trust those of plain software vendors, although its worth noting that all these security vendors have an interest in the numbers looking bad. The MessageLabs 2006 Annual Security Report places a great deal of responsibility for the surge on the SpamThru Trojan/bot. MessageLabs isnt not the first; SecureWorks made this claim not long after SpamThru hit the Internet. It was SecureWorks that spread the word that SpamThru had made the leap of sophistication of downloading and installing a hacked version of Kaspersky Anti-Virus in order to keep the system for itself and remove other malware. For advice on how to secure your network and applications, as well as the latest security news, visit Ziff Davis Internets Security IT Hub. MessageLabs said it thinks SpamThru is a breakthrough program, a harbinger of techniques inevitably to be copied by other spambots. The company compared SpamThru to Sobig, which, several years ago, really launched the spambot phenomenon big-time. SpamThru, according to MessageLabs, is much more robust than the typical bot based on other popular malware like Sobig and Bagle. Its capable of operating more independently of central control than others. And even so, MessageLabs claims that SpamThru bots are operating at far less than their capacity. So why does Symantec rank SpamThru a "Very Low" threat? And why does neither Symantec nor Sophos mention the Kaspersky Anti-Virus connection? McAfee said of this malware (McAfee and some others call it "DComServ"):
    "It is believed that the Trojan downloads a copy of Kaspersky Anti-Virus to scan the local system to remove malware other than itself but we have not witnessed this as the remote sites the Trojan attempts to contact are no longer available."
How about Kaspersky? I think this ("SpamTool.Win32.Agent.r") is Kasperskys write-up on it, but it basically says, "We dont know anything about this." Security Center Editor Larry Seltzer has worked in and written about the computer industry since 1983. He can be reached at larryseltzer@ziffdavis.com. Check out eWEEK.coms Security Center for the latest security news, reviews and analysis. And for insights on security coverage around the Web, take a look at Ryan Naraines eWEEK Security Watch blog.
Larry Seltzer has been writing software for and English about computers ever since—,much to his own amazement—,he graduated from the University of Pennsylvania in 1983.

He was one of the authors of NPL and NPL-R, fourth-generation languages for microcomputers by the now-defunct DeskTop Software Corporation. (Larry is sad to find absolutely no hits on any of these +products on Google.) His work at Desktop Software included programming the UCSD p-System, a virtual machine-based operating system with portable binaries that pre-dated Java by more than 10 years.

For several years, he wrote corporate software for Mathematica Policy Research (they're still in business!) and Chase Econometrics (not so lucky) before being forcibly thrown into the consulting market. He bummed around the Philadelphia consulting and contract-programming scenes for a year or two before taking a job at NSTL (National Software Testing Labs) developing product tests and managing contract testing for the computer industry, governments and publication.

In 1991 Larry moved to Massachusetts to become Technical Director of PC Week Labs (now eWeek Labs). He moved within Ziff Davis to New York in 1994 to run testing at Windows Sources. In 1995, he became Technical Director for Internet product testing at PC Magazine and stayed there till 1998.

Since then, he has been writing for numerous other publications, including Fortune Small Business, Windows 2000 Magazine (now Windows and .NET Magazine), ZDNet and Sam Whitmore's Media Survey.

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